By Ria Srivastava
NASA’s Ingenuity Mars Helicopter captured this shot as it hovered over the Martian surface on April 19, 2021, during the first instance of powered, controlled flight on another planet. It used its navigation camera, which autonomously tracks the ground during flight.
Ingenuity made history as it lifted off the Martian surface, and has launched a new era of planetary exploration.
A small helicopter opened a new chapter of space exploration on Monday, 19 April 2021, when it lifted off the surface of Mars, marking humankind’s first powered flight on another planet. The 19-inch-tall chopper called Ingenuity kicked up a little rusty red dust as it lifted about 10 feet off the ground, hovered in place, turned slightly, and slowly touched back down. The flight lasted only about 40 seconds, but it represents one of history's most daring engineering feats.
The Ingenuity team at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California confirmed the flight succeeded after receiving data from the helicopter via NASA’s Perseverance Mars rover at 6:46 a.m. EDT. The solar-powered helicopter successfully completed its first flight at 3:34 a.m. EDT, 12:33 Local Mean Solar Time (Mars time) – a time the Ingenuity team had determined would have the optimal energy and flight conditions.
Now that Ingenuity has taken its first flight, the team can plan a second, which will likely perform the same hovering maneuver but a bit higher and for a bit longer. They are about halfway through a 31-day window to test the helicopter, using Perseverance as a communication relay to Earth before the rover drives off to begin its search for past life on Mars. Up to five flights are planned, building up to a trip down a 50-foot-long flight zone and back.
Perseverance rover took a selfie on Mars with the Ingenuity helicopter on April 6. Perseverance then drove off to an overlook about 200 feet away to watch Ingenuity’s flight attempt.
Challenges to the Flight
The Martian atmosphere is only about 1% as thick as Earth’s and a significantly lower gravity – one-third that of Earth. This means there are relatively few air molecules with which Ingenuity’s two 4-foot-wide (1.2-meter-wide) rotor blades can interact to achieve flight.
The atmosphere is equivalent to an altitude of about 100,000 feet on Earth—much higher than even the most capable helicopters can fly. The highest helicopter flight in history occurred in 1972, when French aviator Jean Boulet flew to 40,820 feet at an airbase northwest of Marseille. This is what made the flight so daunting.
The Martian helicopter also experienced a setback on April 9, when the craft’s onboard computer shut down early during a test to spin the two rotors at high speed. After reviewing the data, the team at JPL adjusted the command sequence that is sent to the spacecraft to start the rotors, allowing them to complete the high-speed spin test on April 16.
The Helicopter and its Components
Ingenuity launched to Mars on July 30, 2020, attached to the belly of NASA’s Mars 2020 Perseverance rover. They landed together in Jezero Crater on February 18, 2021.
The helicopter, which weighs only 1.8 kg on Earth and 0.68 kg on Mars, is intended to demonstrate technologies needed for flying in the Martian atmosphere. Because of this, there is no requirement to collect science data and there are no science instruments onboard. Instead, the helicopter carries a combination of custom-made and off-the-shelf components – many from the world of cell phone technology – including two cameras. These components are optimized for flight testing along with relaying engineering data and some imagery back to Earth.
Ingenuity has to spin its four-foot-wide rotors up to a frenzied speed of about 2,500 rotations per minute — five times faster than on Earth — during each flight and needs to autonomously control its rotors very quickly to remain stable in the air, using a tiny computer similar to a smartphone’s electronics, as well as technology developed for self-driving cars. Innovative mathematical algorithms will allow flight in the thin atmosphere, keep track of the helicopter’s movements, and ensure it remains on the planned flight path.
In between flights, the small helicopter has to contend with nighttime temperatures that plummet as low as -130°F. A small solar panel specially tuned to the amount of sunlight available on Mars feeds batteries that power the helicopter’s motors and run a heater to keep the craft warm at night.
The team had successfully flight-tested Ingenuity in a Mars-like atmospheric environment in a special chamber on Earth. The flight tests at Mars have now informed the team of the actual performance in the true environment of Mars compared to the models assumed for the environment and the flight tests that took place on Earth.
The Perseverance rover acts as a communications relay between the helicopter and Earth, and also documents the flight tests with its onboard cameras.
As a token of the flight’s historic nature, Ingenuity carries a postage-stamp-size piece of fabric from the original Wright Flyer, which carried Orville Wright on the first powered flight of a heavier-than-air aircraft in 1903. That flight over the hills of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, lasted only 12 seconds.
Scope of the Flight
The data Ingenuity has returned will benefit future explorations of the Red Planet – including those by astronauts – by adding the aerial dimension, which is not available today. These technologies could enable other advanced robotic flying vehicles that might be part of future robotic and human missions to Mars.
Possible uses of a future helicopter on Mars include offering a unique viewpoint not provided by current orbiters high overhead, or by rovers and landers on the ground; high-definition images and surveys for robots or humans; and access to terrain that is difficult for rovers to reach. A future helicopter could even help carry light but vital payloads from one site to another. Helicopters on Mars would be able to study entire craters, canyons, and mountains in much more detail than orbiters. They could also reach locations such as canyon walls or volcanic slopes that a rover could never access.
“My dream is that aerial vehicles become the norm for exploring space,” said MiMi Aung, the project manager of Ingenuity at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. With this historical achievement, we should take some time to think about the future of flying machines on other worlds, and the variety of opportunities of planetary exploration that this mission has opened up.
Images 1, 2 and 4 along with video have been taken from the official NASA sites. https://mars.nasa.gov/technology/helicopter/#
Image 3 from https://www.jpl.nasa.gov/news/press_kits/mars_2020/download/ingenuity_landing_press_kit.pdf